Amsterdam offers a haven for low-energy future

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This article is part of our special report Industrial revival.

In an old harbour crowded with houseboats, Amsterdam is looking to the future with plans to construct low-energy homes in a climate-neutral neighbourhood.

The Houthaven development, with more than 2,000 homes built on peninsulas, is still just a blueprint. But the project is seen as a demonstration that European Union efforts to dramatically improve energy efficiency in buildings are both achievable and economically desirable.

Paula Eckoldt-Wormgoor, a Houthaven project manager for the city, outlined the project’s sustainability goals as she guided a boatload of visitors through the wind-swept harbour northwest of the Amsterdam’s central railway station.

The four-floor residential structures are designed to reduce energy waste so much that designers believe that solar panels and compact wind turbines incorporated into the development will provide nearly all the community’s electricity needs.

The project has received support through the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme designed to fund research and innovation.

Energy-hungry homes

The European Commission estimates that homes and commercial structures account for 40% of energy use and generate 36% of greenhouse gases. Making homes and businesses more efficient – and the energy that powers them more sustainable – form the building blocks of a number of EU laws and strategies.

The EU already has set out goals to cut energy demand for residential and commercial buildings by more than 80% by 2050 through better insulation and ecological design, and wants to reduce the environmental footprint of new construction by turning debris in building material.

The EU directives on Energy Performance of Buildings (2010) and Green Public Procurement (2004) oblige EU countries to improve the safety and energy performance of old and new buildings, while the Energy Efficiency Directive that is now being debated in the European Parliament could set new standards for electricity consumption.

Some analysts say the EU is moving far too slowly in achieving its targets, in part because the housing business is relatively static, with annual rates of new construction and renovation both stuck at 1% of the overall market. A maze of directives, regulations and strategies may also hamper implementation and enforcement.

Oliver Rapf, who heads the Buildings Performance Institute Europe, has compared the EU’s laws and policies on sustainable construction to a “puzzle”.

“What is clear is there is a need for one integrated policy framework so that all these pieces of the puzzle fit together in an integrated way,” Rapf told a recent conference on sustainable construction in Amsterdam.

He also said that many EU countries are not doing enough to stop urban creep and instead to reuse abandoned land or buildings – so-called brownfields.

Yet there has been significant progress towards improvements in building efficiency and tapping into renewable energy.

Projects across Europe

Despite doubts that longer term goals will be met at today’s pace, there has been progress in converting old homes into more efficient energy users and constructing greener places to work and live.

Estonia capitalised on 2009 amendments to the European Regional Development Fund that for the first time allow governments to provide money to improve the energy efficiency of private property. The country set up a revolving loan fund that provided €18.4 million in energy efficiency investments in buildings last year, according to the Commission.

In Germany, the state-backed KfW Bank provides capital to small businesses for energy-efficiency projects and offers loans of up to €50,000 to individuals to make their homes more efficient. The project is credited with energy upgrades to more than 200,000 properties per year.

And in the Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, citywide efforts to renovate public and private buildings to cut water and energy use helped the city of 250,000 people win the EU’s Green Capital award for 2012.

The Spanish city is also taking steps to cut carbon emissions with plans to reduce automotive traffic to one-third of today’s levels. It also wants to expand green space beyond the current 33% of the urban area, Xabier Marrero Múgica, project manager for European programmes at the Vitoria-Gasteiz City Council, told the Amsterdam sustainable development conference.

Cool air from river water

In Amsterdam, Houthaven is seen as having other sustainability benefits. Part of the project involves building peninsulas using sand from new tunnels being dug for the expansion of the city’s underground metro system.

Other conservation features part of the Houthaven community plan. There will be parks rather than parking incorporated into the development as part of the city’s goal to cut overall carbon emissions. The four-storey residential buildings will be cooled using water piped from the River Ijmeer, said Eckoldt-Wormgoor.

City officials say the housing is aimed at creating affordable, sustainable neighbourhoods in an area that has gradually lost its significance as port.

“It’s not just made for the high-up market,” Eckoldt-Wormgoor said, with prices estimated to fall between the more traditional neighbourhoods on the waterfront and upscale apartments found in converted warehouses nearby. Some 20% will be reserved for lower-income residents.

But tough economic times demonstrate one of the challenges of the EU’s push for creating more sustainable communities. Already private developers have scaled back their involvement, and a tunnel connecting Houthaven’s peninsulas may have to be scrapped to save money.

“The city is having to reconsider some of its plans,” Eckoldt-Wormgoor said, adding Amsterdam would not veer from its commitment to building a sustainable project.

Amsterdam’s Houthaven community is being planned as part of an EU demonstration project, with completion expected in a decade. It has  benefited from both city and EU support through a €1.5-million Seventh Framework Programme grant. Amsterdam has requested nearly €5 million for its ‘NEXT Building’ project.

Amsterdam officials say that by cutting energy demand in the housing blocks through insulation and eco-design, the community of 2,200 homes will be able to get most of its electricity from renewable energy - solar and compact windmills. Heat will come from the city’s waste-burning plant, while cooling will be provided by water from the River Ijmeer piped through homes, a technique already being used in office buildings across the harbour.

City officials estimate such climate-neutral features will add about €100 per square metre to the cost of a home on top of the expected €4,000 per square metre overall cost. EU funds would cover half the additional cost.

  • 2013: Construction expected to begin on energy-neutral Houthaven development.

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